Neville Hobson

Considering the forthcoming metaverse

It’s only a vision at this point, but technology companies like Facebook are aiming to make the metaverse the setting for many online activities, including work, play, studying and shopping.

How do we ensure everyone has a say in how it develops?

It’s a question Shel and I considered in the primary discussion in the August episode of The Hobson & Holtz Report aka episode 210 of the For Immediate Release podcast published on August 23.

We started with a definition. Wikipedia’s is good but it will likely glaze your eyes. I like the simpler way the World Economic Forum explains it:

It’s gained a lot of attention in recent months. The Financial Times published a great starter piece recently that speaks of “the coming battle over the metaverse” where Big Tech aims to shape how fully immersive virtual reality worlds evolve:

Like with the Information Superhighway [of the 1990s], early visions of the metaverse are likely to be an imperfect approximation of what the ultimate reality will look like. What form it takes and what its first “killer apps” will be are a matter of conjecture. And, most importantly, it is not yet settled who will set the rules and collect the profits — though today’s internet giants are in pole position.

I think the FT’s view of the metaverse being a piece-by-piece evolution has some merit. They say:

Rather than plunging users straight into a full VR world, the metaverse could well take shape more gradually. Using augmented reality to project aspects of the metaverse on to the physical world, for instance, would see it take shape first as a partial digital overlay.

And a wry conclusion:

As things stand, today’s internet powers are in a good position to dominate a future metaverse. If that happens, then they will end up with far more power to shape the online lives of billions of people than they have now. What could possibly go wrong?

CNN reports on why Silicon Valley is betting on making what it calls “this dystopian sci-fi idea” a reality:

The idea is to create a space similar to the internet, but one that users (via digital avatars) can walk around inside of and where they can interact with one another in real time. In theory, you could, for example, sit around a virtual meeting table with colleagues from around the world — instead of staring at their 2D faces on Zoom — and then walk over to a virtual Starbucks to meet up with your mom, who lives across the country.

That’s a bit of a ‘now’ definition when what we’re looking at is something that will start to be usable on a wider scale later this decade. Even Zoom is talking about evolved services for video engagement that look a lot like an element for the coming metaverse.

But hold on a minute. Haven’t we already been here? Remember Second Life? That was a virtual world, released in 2003 and ahead of its time in so many ways, which embraced many elements of the metaverse concept with the exception of connecting the real world. Everything is virtual in Second Life, even the community.

“Second Life is a 17-year-old digital world and an early version of an immersive Metaverse,” said Doug Antin in a May 2020 Medium post that explores the elements of Second Life and how he believes they create a metaverse. Antin is the founder of a company that offers “a new narrative that makes sense of society’s shift into the Digital Age.”

He says:

Because it’s been around for so long and developed its own history and norms, Second Life is an interesting case study in how Metaverse communities evolve over time.

And he notes:

The Second Life community probably won’t ever achieve mainstream adoption. It’s too fringe and the technology doesn’t support easy access to a casual user. But it does represent an incubator for what the Metaverse can become.

It’s worth considering this perspective. And Second Life is still here, by the way, I tend to pop in once every quarter or so, still in my makeover appearance from 2007.

In our discussion, Shel and I touched on a wide range of activities and experiments many people and organisations are doing now. These activities very likely will evolve into constituent parts that, collectively, will make up the metaverse as envisioned by many of today’s predictors such as the experts quoted in the World Economic Forum article mentioned earlier.

This is close to the current Internet model where the Internet (note the upper-case ‘I’) is the umbrella that embraces individual networks or internets (lower-case ‘i’) to enable them to connect to other networks, all of which is the Internet with a capital ‘I.’ Organisations like the Internet Society provide foundational elements such as protocols and standards, technical and other expertise, education, training, and more, to make it all work (see this definition by the Internet Society for a concise explainer).

Is this what the metaverse will be – the next iteration of the Internet that we could also call “Internet 2”?

And there is the matter of data protection, individual privacy, safeguards against bad actors and evil things, all of which will require cooperation and collaboration between everyone with a vested interest in how this metaverse develops in the coming years with openness and transparency at the forefront. Governments are key because they are major enablers of what people can and cannot do from a broad societal point of view. But governments are only one of the stakeholders.

After we recorded this episode, I read an interview with Marc Petit of Epic Games, who oversees the company’s Unreal Engine, a 3D creation platform, and is an influential voice in the global digital gaming industry.

Petit makes a key point about openness and why it’s going to be an important feature in the development of the metaverse:

I think it’s an opportunity to create business models and rules that are more fair for people, [protect] their privacy, and make sure creators get their fair share for the content they create. Because, hopefully, we’re going towards an economy of creation, where people who make the money are the people who created the content, not the people who own the platforms. We want everybody to become a consumer and a creator and so we need the platform and the economy that allows participation for everybody.

It’s a complex picture.

(The image at top is a still from Ready Player One, a 2018 American science fiction adventure film. Set in 2045, much of humanity uses the OASIS, a virtual reality simulation, to escape the real world. See also: “Which World Is More Like The OASIS Of Ready Player One — Second Life Or Metaplace?,” a 2013 article by Wagner James Au, one of the influential early adopters in Second Life.)

Shel and I also discussed a number of other topics in this 80-minute episode; here’s the overall rundown:

See the complete show notes for links to all the articles and other published content that we referenced in this episode including topics in Dan York’s tech report.

Listen Now

https://traffic.libsyn.com/fir/forimmed-210.mp3

(Or download the MP3 file)

Special thanks to Jay Moonah for the opening and closing music.

You can also watch a recording of the live video of this episode we published on our YouTube channel.

Our next episode will be published on Monday September 27. In the meantime, please join us each Thursday at 1pm ET / 6pm UK for 30 minutes of informal conversation in the FIR ZoomChat, a Clubhouse-like session of live audio that’s not recorded. For credentials needed to participate in the Zoom call, send an email to fircomments@gmail.com.

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